Iowa ranks high on well-being of children
Health, education are strengths; poverty remains a problem
By Chelsea Keenan and Molly Duffy,
When it comes to wellness, Iowa's kids are better off than those in most other states, according to a new report, but there still is plenty of room for improvement.
The state ranked third nationally in the new Kids Count Data Book, which looks at the health, education, economic well-being and communities of the country's children. Still, 1 in 7 Iowa children lives in poverty - and that has a ripple effect.
'If there is a lack of income, there are probably fewer education tools and opportunities for kids - books in the house or camps in the summer,' said Mike Crawford, Iowa Kids Count director with the Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines. He said families that can't make ends meet also are less likely to take a child to a doctor.
The annual report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation - a Baltimore organization that focuses on strengthening families - analyzed national, state and local data on child well-being indicators from access to health insurance to teen pregnancy.
Iowa showed improvement in many aspects:
• The teen birthrate has dropped dramatically, from 33 out of 1,000 births in 2008 to 20 out of 1,000 in 2014.
• Fewer teens are abusing drugs and alcohol - 4 percent in 2014 compared with 8 per cent in 2008.
• Fewer Iowa children were without health insurance in 2014 - 3 percent compared with 6 percent in 2008.
Nationally, Iowa ranks third among all states in the health domain; fourth in economic well-being; fifth in family and community; and 11th in education.
PUSH FOR PRESCHOOL
In three of four education measures, Iowa's rates improved - fewer fourth graders are not proficient in reading (62 percent), fewer eighth-graders are not proficient in math (63 percent) and fewer high schoolers are not graduating on time (11 percent), according to the report.
The report noted that about 52 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds are not enrolled in preschool, a rate that has remained unchanged.
Enrolling young children in preschool better prepares them for elementary school, said Christi Regan, director of the Head Start program that serves six Eastern Iowa counties, including Linn and Johnson. Head Start is a federal program with a goal of providing early education to low-income children.
'For a young child, the emphasis is the first 2,000 days' - from birth to about 5 years old, she said. 'Those are the most critical years for brain development of a child. Any opportunity any child has to be in a quality early childhood program will benefit the child.' Iowa's Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program, which offers free preschool for 4-yearolds, was started in 2007. Although Iowa Department of Education spokeswoman Staci Hupp said she can't speak directly to the report's numbers, she said enrollment of 4-yearolds in the program has more than quadrupled since 2007. During this past school year, more than 23,000 4-year-olds were in preschool, compared with 5,000 in 2007-08.
Crawford said he is surprised Iowa's ranking in the preschool category remained unchanged, but noted the data used in this year's report was collected from 2012 to 2014, and more recent data could show a spike.
'I thought it would be a little higher,' Crawford said. 'I know the state has made a push to increase that.'
POVERTY TICKS UP
In the category of economic well-being, state data shows the percentage of children living in poverty has ticked up over the past six years, following national trends. In 2014, 15 percent of Iowa's children - or 109,000 - lived in poverty compared with 14 percent in 2008, according to the Kids Count report. Nationally, 22 percent of children were living in poverty in 2014, compared with 18 percent in 2008.
Karl Cassell, president and chief executive of Horizons, a Cedar Rapids not-for-profit providing social services to low-income families, the elderly and people with mental health issues, said this year's report confirms what the group is seeing locally.
'We know from the Cedar Rapids Community School District that about 50 percent of children are on free-and reduced (price) lunch,' he said. 'That should be a wakeup call.' Several policy steps could be taken in the fight against poverty, officials said.
The state should consider increasing the Iowa earned income tax credit - which reduces the amount of taxes owed for low- to moderate-income earners and refunds the difference if the credit is larger than the amount owed - from 15 percent to 30 percent, as well as raising the child care subsidy eligibility from 145 percent to 200 percent of the poverty level, Crawford said.
Increasing the minimum wage to at least $10 an hour also is a must, Cassell added.
'We have got to start paying people more,' he said. 'The cost to live, the cost of education - that far exceeds what people are earning.'
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